By Regina Raiford
One of the most compelling questions today is “What is the best way to manage schools and improve education?” Recent newspaper articles have focused on the controversy of school privatization. Moreover, the charter school movement is sweeping the country as many states enact or consider new education legislation. Currently, 38 states have charter school legislation allowing individuals or organizations to apply to run a school.
However, there is another story that is often overlooked: how private corporations can bring new skills to the difficult task of designing, constructing, starting up, and maintaining educational facilities. Edison Schools, headquartered in New York City, is the nation’s leading charter school manager, devoted to creating a network of schools with enlightened, efficient educational facilities.
In 2000, New York City-based Ksixteen was formed from the real estate department of Edison. Its mission is to provide a highly responsive and effective system for the design and construction, financing, and technology needs of schools, grades Kindergarten through high school. From 1997 to the present, this real estate team has managed part or all of over 135 school construction projects. Ksixteen is using a unique mixture of experience and innovation to deliver new solutions to the traditional methods of developing and managing schools. With projects worth over $300 million, Edison manages the education of 23,000 charter school students.
Chris Whittle, the founder of Whittle Communications, formed Edison Schools, formerly The Edison Project, in 1992. Whittle and his team of education professionals dedicated the first four years of the company to comprehensive research into best practices in education, technology, and communications. “It features a longer school day, a longer school year, special subjects, a high-technology component for all students, a high degree of parental involvement, and a research-based curriculum in Reading and Math,” says Joe Kenney, president and chief executive officer, Ksixteen, and executive vice president of development, Edison Schools. Extensive research was also done in architectural design to discover the components of a first-class learning environment.
Ksixteen is in the business of running schools for education management organizations, public school districts, and charter school boards. In Dallas, for example, Ksixteen and Edison manage seven schools for a public school system. The two collaborate with clients with respect to hiring, curriculum, technology, and real estate needs of a new school.
The majority of Ksixteen’s projects have involved the modernization of existing structures, typically in urban areas. “We are much more sensitive to the costs of a project [than traditional public schools]. We prefer to make an old building new,” says Kenney. Ksixteen is known for its “creative conversions,” turning outdated schools, office buildings, retail stores, hospitals, even a Masonic temple into cost-efficient but high-tech learning environments.
The key to successful school construction is doing things on time and within budget. Ksixteen has created master specifications – generic specifications, based on previous projects, to streamline the process. “We are taking the best practices out of those initial projects and incorporating those into this master specification,” says Tom Gannon, vice president of construction and design, Ksixteen. According to Gannon, a typical document includes space requirements, drawings for each room type, a power and signal plan, and ceiling, equipment, and furniture plans. The specifications significantly compress the schematic design phase of a project for a local architect.
“Traditionally we are doing projects in one-third of the time that public schools are constructed. One of the ways to compress the design schedule is with a pre-programmed set of standards. It is a living document,” says Gannon. The clients are a key part of the acquisition, design, construction, and financing process, attuned to every step of creating the schools. “They have a lot to say about what is included in the building and what’s not,” says Kenney.
In some economically depressed areas, the new schools serve as a valuable resource. “[An Edison school] provides a solid space that can be used by the community overall,” says Adrian Morgan, Ksixteen’s vice president of business development. In Albany, for example, the Edison school was designed to also serve as a community center. Many times, a new school can serve as an important piece in the revitalization of a neighborhood.
One of the things Edison is celebrated for is its enriched technology environment, inside and outside of the schools. Its extensive home connectivity program began with loaning computers to parents so that students could log on to the Edison server. Edison’s connectivity programs mandate parental involvement. Adds Kenney, “It’s a great way to build a bridge between the parents and the school.” The program has since expanded to include free software for students’ personal computers.
High-tech doesn’t end there, however. Currently, Edison is experimenting with a wireless computer lab. In addition, the organization is working with a computer manufacturer to create a new student device, a cross between a laptop and a personal data assistant. Concurrently, Edison is launching a pilot program in distance learning with customized online content in Spanish and Science to supplement hands-on learning.
Another powerful application of technology is the use of simple online tests to benchmark student performance. Such testing gives the school administration, teachers, and Edison quick data on deficient areas.
Connectivity is crucial to Edison; schools constantly collaborate. “Every school is connected in our technology network. The schools see themselves very much as members of a family,” says Morgan. Regional schools and separate disciplines have set up educational conferences.
The organization is also experimenting with a community technology model, where an IT group staffs a cluster of regional schools to reduce user support inefficiencies. Typically, Edison schools spend $500 per student on technology needs.
Kenney believes the movement has created space for more innovation than the traditional education model. Ksixteen’s website, working with local architects and contractors, helps coordinate construction projects across the country and encourages flexibility in construction methods and design mentality. “[A] compressed timeframe, typically nine months from design to implementation, and creative build-outs, the concept of converting other use buildings to schools: These are the two main aspects of how Ksixteen functions differently in the marketplace and in education,” says Gannon.
The people behind Ksixteen and Edison came to the education field to be a part of something important – the ability to affect the lives of children in a positive way. Drawn by this strong mission, they are introducing something new into the world of education and educational facilities management.Regina Raiford (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.